Games for Racial Justice and Equality (Part 2)

Continuing where we left off. A much weaker showing this time, with a lot of games I couldn’t even finish.

Death? Preposterous!
Puzzle/Visual Novel

I could not get into this at all. In addition to RPG Maker MV running poorly on my computer, this really, really should have been made in a visual novel or text-based engine. I barely played past the opening and I was already sick of the protagonist’s internal narration by then. He gives us a constant running narrative of his every thought and feeling, no matter how obvious or trite, and you can’t even skip it because the text has a fixed scrolling speed. Subtlety, people.

DYO
Puzzle Platformer

A puzzle platformer about two minotaurs, presumably escaping the Labyrinth. The central mechanic is each minotaur can freeze their screen, and when both are frozen, the minotaurs can travel between each others’ screens as if they were a contiguous area. This results in some really mind-bending spatial puzzles, and it’s complicated with more gimmicks in the later levels. I particularly liked the mechanic of one minotaur’s screen getting zoomed out — the size of everything remains constant even when they move between screens, so you can shrink or grow objects by transferring them back and forth. Pretty cool.

Escape From Life, Inc.
Puzzle Platformer

A character-swap puzzle platformer where you switch between a fish, a bird, and a reindeer, each with their own unique ability. It is thoroughly mediocre due to terrible controls, glitchy physics, and very uninspired puzzles. The game never really forces you to expand your thinking; the animals are always used the exact same way, and it’s always obvious what you need to do. The level design is also highly questionable, with only some levels requiring you to get all three to the exit; you can trivialize several levels by just flying to the end with the bird.

It also irritated me that the game pats itself on the back for never explicitly gendering anyone despite quite clearly coding every single character as male, including giving them all masculine names and masculine-sounding voice beeps. You gotta try a little harder if you want to smash the gender binary, artists.

Minit
Action Adventure/Metroidvania

A Zelda-like with the gimmick that your sword is cursed to kill you after one minute. When your 60 seconds are up, you respawn in your home base. The key is that the rest of the world does not reset with you; any items you collect and any changes you make to the game world will stay, so you can make incremental progress across multiple runs. While I normally hate time limits, I found this mechanic to be quite interesting. Since there’s no limit on how many runs you can make, the time limit is less of a stressor and more of a resource you need to consider. You need to prioritize what you’re going to do in each run and truly understand how the game world links up so you can pick efficient routes to your destination. I found some of the puzzles unnecessarily obtuse, but you can finish the game pretty easily without having to stress over 100%ing it. Also, the final boss is hilarious.

Not sure if it’s worth $10, though. By its nature it has a pretty limited playtime, and it’s very minimalist on top of that; there isn’t much else going for it except the gimmick.

Fugue
Puzzle

Numbers fly across musical notes that change their value based on where they’re placed in the score. You must rearrange the notes to match a target number. That’s about it. There are more complicated operations like repeats and multiplication, but it’s basically just algebra homework. Levels oscillate wildly from trivial to literally having no algebraic solution and requiring you to guess. The aesthetic isn’t enough to make it enjoyable, either; it’s all a drab monochrome, and though it plays the song you create at the end of the level like it’s an accomplishment, most of the songs are going to be monotone because that’s the easiest way to divvy up the notes. There’s just not much here.

Gladiabots
Strategy

Essentially a real-time strategy game, except you get to construct the AI of all your units yourself before each match. There’s a lot of control and mechanics to play with, including win conditions more complex than just eliminating all enemy units. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get into it because there’s no story, context, or interesting aesthetics to keep me invested, but it seems like a solid concept. Definitely worth a look to anyone who wants to get into programming and robotics.

Haque
Roguelike

Somehow runs like molasses despite having graphics so simple they’re borderline incomprehensible. The whole thing has a weird grainy lo-res filter that makes reading the tiny text a chore, and it has a really frustrating control setup that forces you to jump between the keyboard and mouse constantly. Play NetHack instead.

Inner
Horror

I literally can’t figure out how to play this game. You walk around dark, spooky corridors that supposedly represent your mind, and eventually you run into a ghosty thing that gives you a game over. You can’t save, so I can’t make even incremental progress.

I Have Low Stats But My Class is “Leader”, So I Recruited Everyone I Know to Fight the Dark Lord
RPG

So, you may recall I talked a bit about party size limits in RPGs when I made Flawed Crystals. This game takes that idea to an absolutely ridiculous extreme, having a party roster around the size of Suikoden‘s, and allowing you to use every single character at once. As performance art, it’s amusing, but it’s obviously pretty much unplayable in practice, not least because it runs like molasses. Far too many of the characters are virtually identical, and there are far too many in general for the player to be able to memorize and juggle their unique abilities. Points for effort, but this would have worked a lot better and still managed to get the joke across with about a third of the characters.

Insufficient Adjectives
Puzzle

Delivery trucks are sent out to various stores. You are only told the adjectives that describe their contents, and must decide from there which store matches their goods. …And then, to actually deliver it, you need to rearrange the roads of the city so that the mindless truck drivers will go down the correct paths, or else they’ll crash. The game is ostensibly Deep Symbolism about “the labels we use to describe ourselves, and how those labels help us find our tribe,” but in practice, the actual gameplay mechanics are just frustrating. It’s hard enough just getting the trucks to avoid crashing, let alone directing them to the correct store. Also, there doesn’t appear to be an exit button — I had to Ctrl-Alt-Del my way out of the game. Overall, very amateurish and sloppily made.

Intelligent Design: An Evolutionary Sandbox
Sim

Exactly what it says on the tin, but it feels more like a proof-of-concept than a finished game. There are only three types of life, plants, herbivores, and carnivores, and they are only represented through abstract shapes with no personality. The genetic engineering element just confused me, because it’s not very clear what each gene does or why I might want to modify it. I ultimately wasn’t able to get a sustainable ecosystem going despite my best efforts — my carnivores just wouldn’t breed for some reason. The UI is also really weirdly designed; instead of the typical top-down view used in god sims, you control the camera like you’re in a first-person shooter, a design choice I cannot fathom the motivation behind. Moving the camera to get to where you need to go is extremely tedious, everything feels either too big or too small, and there’s no easy way to assess the total number of units or the total size of your area. The sameyness of the graphics doesn’t help, either.

Intra-System: Trust Issues
Visual Novel/Puzzle

I don’t really understand the point of this game. You’re in communication with an agent trapped in some sort of torture dungeon, and are fed information through a console that tells you how he can navigate the rooms safely. You can choose to help him or betray him in every room, and… that’s pretty much it. There’s some sort of metaplot where the agent keeps getting reset every time he dies/escapes, but if there’s any proper resolution or answer to the mysteries I can’t find it. I don’t really get the point of it; I initially thought the tension was whether to trust the system, but it never steers you wrong. The only reason to betray the agent is seemingly sadism or curiosity, and if this is supposed to be yet another edgy “You’re a bad person because we made such a crappy simulation you instantly got bored enough to want to break it” thing I’m so sick of those.

Communication from the agent is fully voice-acted, the only purpose of which seems to be to make you feel extra bad if you get him hurt, but in practice it just makes it impossible to skip through quickly on repeat runs and runs the risk of you not catching what he’s saying. The options you can say to him are also frustratingly limited, and run into a particular problem that always annoys me in games where it seems like your character has information you don’t. When he asks, “Who are you?” I don’t know if “I don’t know” is a truthful answer or not.

It’s free, at least, so it has that going for it if you want to try it out.

Keep It Together
Puzzle

A buggy mess where interface elements keep breaking and refusing to register my input. The gameplay also requires you to hold down many keys at once, which quickly becomes impossible because keyboards limit the number of simultaneous inputs. Ostensibly, the game is meant to be an analogy for social anxiety: You are secretly a hivemind of rats in a trench coat, and have to pick socially acceptable responses to prevent people from finding out; however, every NPC you encounter has randomized preferences that narrow down the acceptable response to only one of four. So, in practice, this is just a frustrating guessing game. I guess that sort of speaks to the experience of social anxiety, but it doesn’t change the fact that it makes for a terrible game. This is just a lazy hackjob with a theme clumsily stapled on to make it seem deep. It isn’t.

Lenna’s Inception
Action Adventure

A procedurally-generated Zelda-like. You play as the hero of Courage Fortitude’s teacher, who has to take over his duties after he is accidentally killed on the tutorial mission. It’s surprisingly coherent, but still suffers from the sameyness that plagues all procedural generation — a big part of Zelda’s appeal is the clear thought and cleverness that goes into each area’s design, and that’s just not a thing here. But the non-procedural parts are quite good. I liked the boss fights — they do a particularly interesting thing where their first form is a cliche Zelda boss with an obvious weakness, but after that’s defeated they transition into a second form that’s a lot more challenging but still incorporates the dungeon item in a clever way. The story was also an amusing parody of Zelda, though it has a very annoyingly obtuse true ending that requires replaying the entire game to see. It did please me that you can actually read the lost library books, and they often contained hints for easter eggs. Overall, though, the game feels very rough around the edges, with a lot of the overworld unfortunately falling into a very obvious “lock-and-key” feel with its obstacles.

I think it’s also interesting to contrast this with Anodyne in terms of how to implement glitch-based gameplay. The glitch mechanic is much better-done here, with limitations to prevent you from breaking anything too much and a lot of tricks to make sure you don’t get stuck (areas loop around if you go out of bounds, something I greatly appreciated after Anodyne just completely broke when that happened). The mechanic works in a very clear way and the final dungeon is set up in such a way that makes it obvious how to use it. I was never confused as to whether or not I was supposed to glitch to proceed.

That said, the final dungeon really needed a map. I got lost so many times before I stumbled over the exit.

Long Gone Days
RPG

An RPG set in the modern era where you play as soldiers who defect from a fictional super-powerful mercenary cult called The Core. It’s… decent, I suppose? But it couldn’t really keep my interest. The writing is painfully YA and melodramatic, with the main character simultaneously acting too much like a normal, non-cultist person and at the same time beggaring belief with how much basic knowledge he seems to lack. Soldiers are not just killing machines, they need to have a wide breadth of general knowledge about the world. Probably the most egregious thing is that the soldiers only know English despite being deployed all around the world.

Once you get past the prologue, the story does improve into a narrative about defending refugees and civilians from the callous war powers who see them as acceptable losses for their own self-serving goals, but dear god the protagonist is still so whiny, childish, and stupid. At times it honestly feels like he’s in a different story than the other characters. (“Oh my god, I never imagined warfare would involve killing people! Let me literally GO INTO AN ANGST COMA over the trauma and immediately defect.”) Adair is hardly better, Mr. “I’m sure this conversation about helping you defect isn’t being wiretapped by our super technologically advanced military cult and I’m sure they’ll totally understand if we explain I helped their soldier defect because killing people gave him a tummyache.” How did you even get on the elite squad, Adair, you clearly have no idea how your own military works.

The gameplay is mildly inventive but doesn’t diverge enough from its jRPG roots, I think. You still have the basic Attack/Skill/Item setup. Basic attacks let you choose to aim for the arms or head, which have a chance of paralysis or high damage respectively; while I do really like RPGs that try to make their basic attack feature more engaging, the chances of either effect are so low they’re basically never worth trying. (Also, you would think the sniper would have the best accuracy, but he actually seems to have the worst? I don’t get the stat layouts in this.) They also do something interesting with MP by calling it “morale” and making it a highly limited resource that can be gained or lost through dialogue and story events, but they still do the thing I hate with “realistic” RPGs where skills are types of items, so characters can somehow pull infinite pipe bombs and medkits out of the ether. (The fact that both of those things are also actual items that function as actual limited resources just draws more attention to the disjoint.) Even beyond that, though, battles are just… not very deep. Enemies only have a basic attack and maybe one special skill if you’re lucky. The random-chance hit rates are also an exceedingly poor fit for the limited-resource railroad structure, because you can completely screw yourself over and bottom out your morale just by getting a lot of unlucky roles (or, as I did, foolishly thinking I was supposed to aim for headshots with the sniper and missing three turns in a row).

The game also flip-flops a lot on whether it wants to be a choice-driven visual novel or a linear narrative. You’re given a lot of choices in cutscenes where either all but one are dummy options or they all amount to saying basically the same thing, and it doesn’t seem like they affect the course of the plot, at least from what I’ve played. I’m also really pissed that, after giving me a choice in every meaningless banal conversation, they didn’t give me the choice to shoot the war criminal at the end of chapter 1. Boo. If he ends up coming back I’m going to reach through the screen and throttle the protagonist.

Also, the art style is anime sameface, which seems a poor fit for the aesthetic.

Lingotopia
Puzzle

An education game about learning foreign languages. You play as a traveler stranded in a foreign land who must learn the native language piece by piece. It’s a very interesting concept and one I think would work well with the structure of a video game, but the game seems useless for its purpose. I really question the design ethos on this — the way you learn new words is either by clicking on objects in the game world, or through a multiple-choice guess of a random word spoken in conversation. There does not appear to be any structure or algorithm to ensure you get the most important words first; I learned over a dozen nouns and prepositions before I learned my first pronoun. It’s even worse at teaching grammar: Grammar rules are scattered throughout the city on billboards, but they are very rare and I couldn’t find any way to actively track them down. You would have better luck learning a language through a conversion dictionary.

The game itself also seems to be rather half-baked. The walk speed is agonizingly slow, object collision is glitchy, and at one point I somehow locked my game by opening a menu.

Mable and the Wood
Platformer

This is a platformer without jumping. How does that work, you ask? …Well, it tries. The conceit is that the Magic Sword of Destiny is too heavy for the hero to lift, so she moves around by dropping it and transforming into various smaller forms that allow her to move in the air. You then snap the sword back to you when you land, which is how you attack enemies. I think it would have been a pretty cool game if they’d just stopped there, buuut as soon as you start unlocking more forms the game fell apart for me. The second form lets you swing from web strands like Spider-Man, except it can only be active for a very limited time between touchdowns and the physics are incredibly janky and unpredictable. I managed to get through the next area, but only barely, and was too frustrated to continue further.

MewnBase
Survival Sim

A cute survival/base building game where you play as a cat astronaut exploring an alien planet for resources. Despite still being in development, I found it remarkably solid. There’s a lot of upgrades and stuff you can do, and a wide variety of resources and crafts. I think it suffers a bit in the mid-game where your ability to explore farther from the base hits a wall until you get upgrades like the oxygen tank and vehicles, but it’s overall a pleasant and enjoyable game. My biggest gripe at the moment is that the tutorial feels like it stops halfway through, and there are a lot of unclear mechanics that are never explained. Hopefully that will be fixed in future updates.

MidBoss
Roguelike

A rougelike where you play as a weak monster with only one ability: the ability to possess other monsters. Possessing monsters will give you access to their abilities, which you can then master and take back into your base form. It’s a pretty cool concept and I enjoyed playing around with the different monster types. It definitely runs into the standard problem of magical builds just not being worth the effort, though, and there are a lot of monsters with ridiculously high defenses that just take ages to kill.

Oh Jeez, Oh No, My Rabbits Are Gone!!!
Puzzle Platformer

You are a rabbit farmer whose rabbits are petnapped by evil anti-rabbits, and you have to rescue them. The mechanics work sort of like Lemmings, where the rabbits will move on their own and you have to give them the right instructions to solve the puzzle and get to safety. I liked it a lot. It’s very cute, there’s a lot of cleverness to the mechanics, and each area tends to be very open and allows you to explore it at a leisurely pace. Additionally, the platformer mechanics are some of the best I’ve seen in a puzzle platformer — they are solidly a puzzle-solving element, with fixed length and height that are highlighted for you with a helpful indicator. There is never any uncertainty about if you can make a jump, and jumping just ends up smoothly integrated into your puzzle-solving mindset.

The one criticism I have is that the endgame really overstayed its welcome, in my opinion. In a stark contrast to the rest of the game, it’s a purely linear sprint through tons of really hard obstacles and with no rabbits to rescue. At first I was hyped, but it just keeps going, as long if not longer than a full regular area. I think it would have been better as a more condensed experience (and without introducing new mechanics that were ultimately just kind of annoying).

Myth Bearer
RPG…?

An “open world RPG” with combat that consists of clicking on stationary enemies until one of you dies alongside a dull, cliche D&D plot. There is no strategy to this, barely any gameplay, and nothing to keep me invested through the grind. I really, genuinely cannot understand what is supposed to be appealing about these types of games, or why they’re so prevalent.

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